In an erudite and timely piece for the New York Times, published just a few days before the midterm elections in early November 2018, my distinguished Columbia University colleague Andrew Delbanco wrote a poignant essay about “The Long Struggle for America’s Soul.”
In this learned piece, Professor Delbanco writes passionately about the long US history of human suffering that had come before the cruel behaviours and policies of the democratically elected President Donald Trump, focusing specifically on slavery.
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“Even free black people in the North …” we learn in this piece, “found their lives infused with terror of being seized and deported on the pretext that they had once belonged to someone in the South. The Fugitive Slave Act forced them to dread every footstep on the stairs and every knock on the door. As for the millions still in bondage in the South, it deepened the despair of the already desperate.”
Delbanco also points to some crucial events in the later history of the United States, such as Abraham Lincoln’s call for “re-adoption” of to the Declaration of Independence, the New Deal of the 1930s, and the Civil Rights Movement as attempts to right the terrorising wrongs of slavery.
His excellent essay and his recent book from which it is drawn, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War (2018), seem to rest on the assumption that the “American Soul” is something quintessentially good and even noble, sublime, and beautiful to behold, and yet there are dark forces trying to take it over and spoil it.
But with due diligence and persistent struggle and perhaps even the grace of God, so this assumption goes, Americans will someday get there and win the noble battle for the “American Soul”.
Might the opposite be true?
This widely accepted idea of the benign essence of the “American soul”, however, has never been questioned and the opposite assumption – that it is not intrinsically good – has never been critically examined.
So might it be that exactly the opposite proposition is true: That this “American soul” might, in fact, be precisely what we now see in Trump and Trumpism, institutionalised not just in the heinous history of slavery but even earlier than that – in the genocidal history of American conquest and slaughter of native peoples?
And that the whole sustained history of US thuggish militarism on almost every continent on planet earth, waging wars, toppling regimes, instigating military coups is its natural manifestation?
We may, in fact, be hard pressed to find a single moment in American history when hateful racism, sexism, militarism, and xenophobia have not been entirely definitive to this “American soul”.
Could this “American soul” perhaps be something entirely diabolical, perturbed, vicious, vindictive, monstrously greedy from the get-go?
With far less historical erudition and far more political rhetoric liberal politicians ranging from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders keep telling Americans what Trump is doing “is not what America is all about.”
Campaigning against Donald Trump during the midterm elections, Obama went out and loudly declared: “We helped spread a commitment to certain values and principles like the rule of law and human rights and democracy and the notion of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual.”
Really? Is that what the US has done around the globe? Who exactly is this “We”? Would that “We” include the US president who gave billions of dollars to Israel to slaughter Palestinians with ease and to the Saudis to commit war crimes in Yemen; and would it include the president before him who left Iraq and Afghanistan in ruins?
We seriously need to examine this American soul business and wonder what makes it so murderously detrimental to world peace, and while we are at it rediscover what is this “America really about”.
Not just Democrats and former and current officials but human rights organisations also believe Trump is antithetical to American values. “Trump Abandons American Values at UN,” this according to Human Rights First’s Senior Vice President for Policy Rob Berschinski.
But Trump and Trumpism are as American as mom and apple pie – and an entire racist and xenophobic history of the US is there to verify it. And if the structurally corrupt Democratic Party under the leadership of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer are supposed to be the alternative to that truth, then the Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, and Yemenis brutalised identically under both Republicans and Democrats may have something to say about the matter.
Soon after Professor Delbanco’s learned essay, the Democrats gained control of the House while the Senate remained in the solid command of the Republicans.
The hardcore Clintonite Nancy Pelosi and her comrade, the even more morally compromised Chuck Schumer, were now the revolutionary icons of “resistance” to Mitch McConnell and his club of 50 plus racist firebrand elite protecting the wealthy and the powerful 1 percent for the foreseeable future. We were led to be happy that the deeply corrupt Democrats had a modest victory over the corrupt Republicans.
So where does this American soul reside these days: In Trump’s White House, in Mitch McConnell’s Senate, in Nancy Pelosi’s House, or in Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court?
Despite the liberal media’s insistence to contrary, this midterm elections in no way, shape, or form was a repudiation of Donald Trump or any so-called “blue wave” or anything of the sort. It was a very basic and in fact dismal and cliche midterm swing historically integral to US elections.
It is crucial for us not to fall into the trap of thinking the enemies of the Trumpian loonies are the friends of any progressive politics. In the US you run away from neo-con Trumpian terror and you find yourself in the bosom of the neoliberal Clintonite cabal.
One quick look at the red-blooded electoral map of the US after the midterm elections shows this, in fact, is certainly not – as liberals love to say – a divided country. It is a solidly and unmistakably racist, sexist, xenophobic and violent country obsessed with domestic gun violence and foreign conquest with a few pockets of wishy-washy liberal resistance here or there.
From Brazil to Saudi Arabia to Israel to the racist, xenophobic, proto-fascist parties in Europe – they all have a solid ally in all the three branches of the US government.
From the earliest stages of the rise of Donald Trump I have argued that contrary to the liberal contingencies of opposition to his brand of blunt and fascistic politics he is “the real deal”: American politics stripped to its bare essence, shorn of all its democratic pretensions and neoliberal niceties.
For eight years Barack Obama was the face of the duplicitous politics of shedding public tears for schoolchildren being shot in the US, before retiring to a back room at the White House to send more arms to Israel and Saudi Arabia to slaughter Palestinian and Yemeni children.
The liberals are very happy as they should be that a few moderately progressive women, a couple of Muslims and new immigrants among them, have joined the Congress. No doubt, if this trend continues maybe in 150 years or so, we might even have a Muslim version of Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Clinton!
This kind of cathartic identity politics will blind us to the real issues facing us globally.
Breaking through the cliche bifurcation
“The two Americas are on a collision course today,” declared the headlines of a typical essay on the midterm elections. On one side stand “young people and minority voters and unusually broad resistance among college-educated white voters, especially women. That threatens Republicans with widespread losses in well-educated, often racially diverse, suburbs in major metropolitan areas around the country.”
Good to know. What about the other side? “On the other side, Trump retains strong support among evangelical, rural and non-college-educated white voters, including women.”
The very epistemic foundation of this bifurcation, which is now very popular among pollster and public opinion pundits, assumes that the proclivity of those voting against Trump does not see anything beyond the Obama-Clinton axis which has an equally horrid history of militarism abroad and corporate corruption at home.
There is nothing in the DNA or “blood” of any people, Americans included, that makes them constitutionally susceptible to latent and blatant fascism. Millions upon millions of Americans gathered around the most progressive figure in recent US politics, Bernie Sanders, in the hope of liberating themselves from the shackles of this gridlock of corrupt corporate politics.
But the Democratic party machinery made sure Sanders did not have a chance to be the Democratic nominee for the 2016 presidential race. Right now, two years into the calamity called Trump, there are talks of Hillary Clinton running for the White House again in 2020. She and the entirety of the Democratic party establishment never heard of the word shame.
Unless and until much wider horizons of political possibilities are opened to the left of Bernie Sanders and beyond, the US will remain exactly in the combined image of Donald Trump at the White House, Mitch McConnell at the Senate, Nancy Pelosi at the House, and Brett Kavanaugh at the Supreme Court – and the mob of racist white supremacists that Steve Bannon and Steven Miller have mobilised for them. For if history has any lesson to teach, that – until further notice – is what America “is really about”, and that indeed is the very quintessence of “the American soul”.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.